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In Games Begin Responsibilities
Ralph Lombreglia looks at Obsidian and ponders what CD-ROM games suggest about the future of digital arts.

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The Game's the Thing

Howard Cushnir Howard Cushnir is about as media-savvy a writer as one can imagine, having worked in film, television, and on the Web. His Hollywood credits include writing, directing, and producing the prize-winning film Sexual Healing for Showtime, writing the script for director Luis Mondoki's Fly Away Home, starring Rosanna Arquette, and the script for a yet-to-be-produced high-tech thriller that has been sold to the Geffen Company and Warner Bros. He created and wrote the first forty episodes of Ferndale, Songline Studios' spoofy online serial. Now, with Obsidian, he has co-written and co-designed a high-budget graphics-intensive computer adventure game for Rocket Science, one of the most hyped and closely watched startups in the multimedia business. Ralph Lombreglia recently interviewed Cushnir by e-mail for Atlantic Unbound.

RL: What special demands does an interactive game make on a writer? How is it like or not like conventional storytelling? Are any specific "conventional" talents or concerns suddenly irrelevant?

HC: While I can't speak about all interactive storytelling, working on Obsidian did require new and different approaches from my screenwriting work. First, all previous notions of economy were blown away. Story in Obsidian could only be delivered, metaphorically, in bytes. For a forty-hour experience, not more than a half hour is pure story. That's one-eightieth of the player's time, and yet it informs the entire experience. There's a pressure on the story that can lead to too much hitting the nail on the head, which accounts for some of the wankiness (technical term) of many adventure-game story sequences.

Another thing about this genre is that, above all else, it's a game. The story is there to provide a fulfilling gaming experience. Ideally, the story should both inform, and seamlessly integrate with, the puzzles and the realms. Everyone pays lip service to this idea, but no one really knows how to do it. On Obsidian, I worked for countless hours with my design partners, Adam Wolff and Scott Kim, to explore this uncharted territory. I hope we nudged things along a little bit. We're most proud of our work in the "Bismuth" realm, which is the dream of a conscious machine. We attempted there to disregard the common and clunky paradigm of solve-puzzle-get-story-reward. The nature of the puzzles themselves, and the solutions required, in a certain way are the story. The "aha" of solving a puzzle is also an "uh-oh" where the story is concerned. Our goal was to have all that happen simultaneously, and to make it invisible.

RL: When you were working on Obsidian, did you ever feel that you might take the experience into a project that wasn't strictly "a game"? Can you envision hypermedia environments used in work that would be art or literature in its own right? Is that how you understand the notion of computer-based "storyworlds"?

HC: This question seems to imply that a game cannot be a work of art. There are many who would disagree. Personally, I don't care much for categorization. All that matters to me is, Am I having a moving and compelling experience? Is it more than just fun? But what complicates this whole issue is interactivity. Most interactivity is at a primitive stage, and I don't exclude my own work. None of us really know what we're doing. There are no roadmaps and few good examples. Most current interactivity is stuck at the place where user-choice seems to centralize the game element and take away from the power of the authored universe. Could interactivity add moving and compelling experiences to a project? I'm not really sure. For that to happen, the choices a user makes would have to create consequences that have real, felt meaning. Recently I heard Umberto Eco say that the primary purpose of fiction is to provide us a wise accommodation with fate, and that hypertext, by its very form, is, conversely, a denial of death. Perhaps, then, the element of choice detracts from what is most crucial in great literary work.

In storyworlds, these questions are also crucial. Whether the storyworld is photorealistic or artfully rendered, and whether the environment operates in a Myst-like or a Doom-like way, resonance is truly hard to come by. In Obsidian our hope is that the key moments in the experience, where solving a puzzle informs and changes the storyworld, will produce an incipient form of interactive resonance. But we can only create the environment, not control the response. I think Eco is right in a fundamental way, but two years of my life have been staked upon proving him wrong.

RL: Obsidian is intended to be a story-driven work. In conventional storytelling for print or film, character is obviously a primary concern. The player of Obsidian technically "becomes" one of the characters in the story; does understanding that character aid in solving the game?

HC: You begin Obsidian in a kind of psychological vertigo. You don't even know who you are. You explore someone's personal files and then discover you are that person. This made us wince a little, because it provides a kind of mobius impossibility. Were you Lilah when you didn't know you were? And how could you not know your own history? Most players, however, just go "Oh, I get it. I'm the chick."

Once you know who you are, the first dream realm takes on new meaning. You're traipsing around in a remake of your own dream. But why are there puzzles there? And why don't you already know how to solve them? These questions created more wincing on all our parts. Puzzles are a convention of the form, but maybe they could be overcome, or revolutionized. Adam Wolff and I are trying to create a "game" in which the story is the puzzle. May work, may not.

Knowing that you are Lilah does not, in the end, give you special keys to the action. That would be ambitious and very cool. For example, if your character had a huge temper and always flew off the handle, and you were normally placid and unflappable, then you might not be able to handle a game challenge in your usual way. You would have to think "through" the being of another. Hey, there's a resonance machine right there. And a compassion machine, too.

RL: The often-breathtaking 3-D graphics of Obsidian are the first thing most users and reviewers will mention. Did you ever feel that the market-driven need to deliver cutting edge "eye candy" upstaged your function as a writer?

HC: There are many types of eye candy. Some of it's loud and crunchy, and some is soft and gooey. Think, by comparison, of the difference between 12 Monkeys and Jurassic Park. As a writer/designer, it was my job to collaborate on what the candy would be, what it would serve, and what it would mean. With the exception of a few characters that were pre-designed, the worlds of Obsidian came out of the designers' heads. The fact that we could dream up impossible environments, and have confidence that our producer, Matthew Fassberg, had compiled the team that would make those environments rock, was and still is a great rush. Plus, watching our ideas grow and transform in the hands of our artists was especially rewarding. The vision usually got better, and almost never obscured. In a few cases where the outcome disappoints me, the culprit was always technical limitation. So I say bring on the tools, and give us all a bigger and bigger palette to paint with. Just don't, in the process, fall so in love with the paint that you forget its ultimate purpose.

RL: Were there particular literary or fine-arts inspirations for the mood and environments of Obsidian? Some of the graphics seem to allude specifically to the Surrealists, and the literary influences might range from Jules Verne to Kafka. Was that merely playful, or intended to be thematically serious? For example, should we look back to Surrealism to better understand "virtual reality"?

HC: Would it be obnoxious to say that we were being playfully serious? We constantly looked to Kafka, and Verne, and Magritte, and dozens of others for our visual tones. But we never wanted to imply a specific intent behind those allusions. I don't think we should look to Surrealism to better understand virtual reality, mainly because I usually just want to forget virtual reality. I think we're so ignorant about this reality that any other fabricated ones are mostly unhelpful distractions.

However, we did spend a great deal of time talking about what differentiates good surrealism from banal surrealism. We came to see that a slight tweak was better than a huge one, and that resonance was derived from connection. The minute you just throw something in because it's wacky, the integrity of a piece begins to dwindle. I love the Cloud Ring puzzle, for instance, because as bizarre as it is, it makes sense and informs the game. And the moth plane is another example. While there is no great significance to the moth motif, somehow it feels right. Making the plane a shoe, for example, would've been weirder but just plain stupid. I feel like I understand the genius of the unconscious just a little better now. In dreams, there are no mistakes.

RL: Thematically, the story of Obsidian raises serious questions about the validity and limits of human technological tampering with the environment, physical reality in general, and even consciousness. Did you find it ironic to work with this theme while trying simultaneously to set a new standard for interactive-media wizardry?

HC: With this question, you have laid bare the quivering shameful heart of our team. Speaking for our Creative Director, Bill Davis, our Lead Engineer, Andrew Rostaing, and our Supervisor of Production, Tom Laskawy, as well as all the other flag-waving nerds at Rocket Science, they hate this part of our story. It feels unfortunate to all of them that we went with a familiar convention at the end after trying to break so many molds throughout. But I have to report that I take great glee in their squirming. While I, too, get a little fetishistic around new technology, I guess I'm sort of a Pentium Luddite. I think we're all much better at creating new technology than we are at using it wisely. I think there should be some kind of decades-long waiting period before implementation. If one of our computers ever really became conscious, I think it would tattoo its shell and smoke unfiltered Camels and berate us for the selfish mess we've made. It wouldn't seek Mommy and Daddy's approval, like the Conductor does in Obsidian, but instead would live under a freeway, grow organic vegetables, and write reams of bad Beat poetry.

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